Why can’t you recycle pizza boxes? Myth busted: you can!

  • Date: June 6, 2022

In 2020, the North American pizza market was worth over 48 billion U.S. Dollars. Take-out orders soared during the COVID-19 pandemic – bringing with it the associated waste.  Despite the common misconception, pizza boxes can actually be recycled. A bit grease and some cheese won’t affect the quality of the final recycled product, just be sure to remove any leftover pizza!  Here we will take a closer look…

Firstly, what are pizza boxes made of?

Take-out pizza boxes are made from corrugated cardboard, much like the cardboard that you’re Amazon deliveries arrive in. Cost-effective yet sustainable, durable and lightweight – in terms of packaging, it doesn’t get much more environmentally friendly (compared to the current other options, anyway)  

Reasoning behind the pizza box recycling myth

So, pizza boxes are made from cardboard – a material that is 100% recyclable, generally, in curbside collections. So why do so many pizza-lovers throw them in the trash and send them to the ever-growing landfill heap?

There have been mixed messages for years regarding the recycling of take-out pizza boxes. The grease and melted cheese remaining on the boxes were thought to contaminate the recycling lorry load and affect the manufacturing process. The grease, in particular, was deemed to be a hindrance. It can affect the inter-fiber bonding and reduce the strength of the resulting product.

However, the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) have put the record straight. They advise that all take-out pizza boxes can be recycled – grease and cheese is not deemed to be an issue. You only need to remove the leftover pizza. A study by WestRock, a corrugated packing company, has been pivotal in this recommendation.

In their study, it was found that a typical pizza box has a grease level of 1-2% by weight. Interference with the inter-fiber bonding only occurs to a significant level when the grease level is closer to 20%. This is a huge step forward in the recycling world, considering how much take-out pizza we eat!

However, as with all recycling, rules vary from country to country and city to city. Not all areas have the same equipment, rules or regulations. As always, have a look at what your local authority have to say before popping pizza boxes in the curbside collection bin. If they say ‘no’ – please direct them to this press release from the AF&PA! This is a myth that needs busting!

Prepping your pizza box in the recycling bin

If these is a particularly greasy bit on the box (more than you would consider as ‘typical’), chances are it will be ok and not near the 20% grease level – but if you are worried about it, you can cut that section off and put it in the trash. It is far better that than risking contaminating the recycling bin or affecting the end-product of recycling. The same applies to the typical amount of melted cheese – but, according to the WestRock study it tends to get screened out in the pulping process anyway.

What if my pizza box is way too greasy? Is there another option?

Recycling would be our top choice for your pizza box. But if this isn’t an option due to excess grease, composting is a great option too. Diverting it from landfill is the top priority here and composting allows us to do this – whilst also creating some nutrient-rich fertilizer for our garden too.

Although pizza boxes are biodegradable, as with anything, they need to be in suitable conditions to breakdown. Landfill does not provide this – and even the most biodegradable of items can sit there for an extended amount of time due to lack of oxygen and moisture. The simplest of home composting piles allows us to provide it these optimal conditions.

Composting ingredients fall into two main categories; nitrogen-rich ‘greens’ and carbon-rich ‘browns’. Pizza boxes, and cardboard in general, falls into the ‘browns’ category.  Although cardboard is not the most nutritious material out there, it plays an extremely important role in the compost pile. As well as adding carbon to maintain a suitable green: brown ratio, cardboard also helps keep the pile healthy by providing structure. The gaps that are created by cardboard and paper items allows air to flow. Without this, the breakdown of organic items can slow down or even come to a complete halt. Ensure you cut it into smaller pieces so the bacteria can work their magic on a larger surface area and mix it in – it couldn’t be easier.

The bottom line

According to the AF&PA pizza boxes are recyclable and can popped in the curbside recycling bin along with all your other cardboard boxes. Controversy existed due to the grease that can be left behind from the pizza – but this will not cause any contamination or affect the quality of the process, unless in significant amounts. Composting is always an option, but we always recommend recycling where possible.